This is a Mario Kart game, plain and simple. Nintendo did not reinvent the wheel. They took a look at their franchise and created a new title that falls in line perfectly with what they already know fans love.
For Mario Kart fans that weren't looking for something new beyond tracks and karts, that's a blessing. For others, it may be time to move on to other kart experiences.
Nintendo did, however, do its standard set of Mario Kart features exceptionally well with this iteration.
The tracks are among the best I've seen in years. That mostly comes from the fact that Nintendo built them with three modes of travel in mind: driving, gliding and underwater driving. Each course has moments that split it between three separate tiers to accommodate for the methods of traversal. In these areas, the courses feel dramatically different for each path you take. That adds a lot of replay value into the experience, something Mario Kart games definitely need.
The characters and karts, however, feel like old hat. They are old hat, in fact, with only a couple making appearances for the first time.
Unlocking them is achieved by winning certain cups or picking up coins on tracks. But it's not like Nintendo made the unlocking process clear. You earn coins, but the game keeps track of that silently and only alerts you at milestone points that reward you with upgrades. There's no shop or clear tree for you to look at and think, "okay, I need to do x, y and z in order to get this new kart frame."
There are three new items in this game, as well. The Raccoon Tail lets players knock opponents and objects away from them at will, the Fire Flower lets you shoot fireballs in straight paths over limited distances and the "7" gives you seven of the base power-ups at once. Of the three, the "7" was my favorite as it's the most unique I've seen from a Mario Kart game in a long time.
The 3D effect here works well enough, but it's not as necessary or stunning as it was in Super Mario 3D Land. It's little more than an illusion on top of great graphics and color selection. While the 3D is okay, the look of the game is perfect. It's exactly what I wanted to see for the 3DS, and I actually found myself consistently playing with the 3D off in order to enjoy the presentation.
The online portion of this iteration of Mario Kart works very well from what I saw. Through testing, I was able to match up with folks quickly and efficiently, and we enjoyed lag free races. That may change near launch, but, for now, it works well.
Plus, Nintendo's created a way for gamers to create their own Mario Kart 7 racing communities. You can build a community around classes, rules and tracks (you can even select a few options regarding which items are allowed or not allowed during races; though you can't manage them on an individual level). Once you make the community, you'll be given a code to share with friends. Then, you can play with your friends under this community banner. It's smart, fun and promises to work well for gamers that love playing Mario Kart with familiar groups.
Unfortunately for those of us that don't necessarily like exploits, snaking is back in this game. Snaking was a "technique" used throughout the online portion of Mario Kart DS. Players could basically power slide and boost throughout the entire track, thus breaking the race formula and winning by lengths. You can do that here, although not as efficiently, and we already played against some folks doing it the entire time. No good.
I suppose the only credit worth giving Nintendo when it comes to electing to rinse and re-use the formula for its Mario Kart franchise comes from the fact that the company never claims that the game has changed all that much. They tout new features, as any company does with their products, but they don't come out yelling that the game is unlike any other in the series. It has 3D, some gyro controls and great multiplayer features, but, at its core, this is a game built with a formula.
For some, that's not enough. This is Nintendo's seventh outing below the Mario Kart banner; it's time to do something new. There are so many other great kart games now that do so, so much more with their feature list that Nintendo almost looks second rate in a genre they practically built. It's time to evolve.
That said, if you buy this game, you'll know exactly what you're getting. It's a Mario Kart title with great features right where you thought they'd be. It's also one of the best original Nintendo 3DS games being offered today. Go in expecting the formula to remain intact, and you'll be satisfied. Otherwise, consider renting or borrowing this one before rushing out and buying it.
Finally, if you've got a group of friends that own 3DS systems, consider the potential for building multiplayer communities. I can easily see that for being a big reason to pick this game up in bulk.
Full Disclosure: CraveOnline was sent a review copy of Mario Kart 7 the Tuesday before its retail release. We spent roughly 12 hours with the game, getting gold and silver cups on every race across every class. We unlocked almost every character and most chart upgrades through the process. We played the game online in all modes, as well, and used the Mario Kart 7 channel.